The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Clearing the Air

By Robert Bryce, October 22, 1999, News

The attacks on Gov. George W. Bush's environmental record are increasing. Two weeks ago, rival presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore said Bush "carries water -- dirty water -- for the special interests." On Tuesday, a coalition of 44 environmental, health, and public interest groups attacked Bush for the decline in Texas' air quality.

Gore attacked Bush immediately after Houston surpassed Los Angeles as the smog capital of the U.S. On Oct. 7, Houston had the highest ozone level reading in the nation this year: 251 parts per billion. It was the highest reading in the Houston area in 10 years, and more than double the amount permitted under federal clean air laws.

The coalition, called the Texas Air Crisis Campaign, says that during Bush's five years in office, air quality in Texas has declined markedly. And they point to data compiled by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to bolster their argument. Over a three-year period, from 1996 through the end of 1998, ground-level ozone readings rose in 11 of the 13 metropolitan areas in Texas. The coalition argues that Bush has not done enough to force industry to clean up their smokestacks. During the last legislative session, for instance, Bush pushed a plan that would have allowed grandfathered plants which spew an enormous amount of pollutants into the air to clean up their emissions on a purely voluntary basis. The Legislature ultimately settled on a plan that imposes escalating fees on the plants if they don't voluntarily clean up their emissions. But environmentalists say Bush should be doing more.

At present, four Texas metropolitan areas are in violation of federal clean air laws -- Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, and Beaumont-Port Arthur -- and Dallas could lose federal highway funds if the state fails to put forward an adequate clean air plan. By next July, four other Texas cities -- Austin, San Antonio, Tyler, and Longview -- will be notified that they are in violation of federal clean air laws, say officials at the Environmental Protection Agency office in Dallas.

Tom Smith, Texas state director of Public Citizen, said, "What we've seen in the past five years is an attempt to deny there's a problem. To delay any attempt to clean up the air, to discourage citizens from participating in the hearings that allow people to complain or contest permits. There's a failure to detoxify our state."

The Bush campaign responded quickly. They claim that since 1994, industrial air emissions in Texas have decreased by 10%, and that Bush's voluntary clean-up effort will result in the equivalent of 5.5 million cars being removed from Texas roads. Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker dismissed the attacks, saying that "campaign year tactics like this only poison the spirit of cooperation that is resulting in significant progress toward cleaner air and water in Texas." The Bush campaign also released a fact sheet touting Bush's environmental achievements as governor.

But it's clear that Bush is going to face escalating attacks on his environmental credentials in coming months. And the report by the new coalition is giving more ammunition to his critics.

For more info, and a list of the organizations involved in the Texas Air Crisis Campaign, go to:

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